Climbing Out of the Box: An Invitation to a Discussion about the Future of Christian Counseling

By: Timothy A. Sisemore, Ph.D. • Director of Research and Professor • Richmont Graduate University

            Since I was in graduate school over 35 years ago, there have been basically two paths for a Christian to take if he or she felt called by God to counsel.  The biblical counselors hung near the church and seminaries and promoted counseling wholly based on the Bible.  They spurned secular professional models of mental health care, choosing a path that almost completely denied the possibility that psychological science had anything at all to offer.  Yet, they did so with complete freedom to follow the Word of God, unencumbered by secular agencies and state boards.  Sure, they lost out on insurance reimbursement, but the problems they treated were defined as spiritual and not medical in any way.

            The road most taken was to go to a program that integrated Christian faith into psychology or counseling.  From the pioneers of Fuller Seminary, Rosemead, and the Psychological Studies Institute (now Richmont Graduate University), these programs multiplied across America, moving from doctoral psychology programs primarily to many masters level counseling programs.  In these counseling/psychotherapy is a profession, and is to be done under the auspices of the state and as monitored by accrediting agencies.  For example, my alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, was the first to receive the blessing of the American Psychological Association while maintaining a clear basis in Christian faith and doctrine.

            In this model, Christian worldview and theology could be integrated with secular models of psychotherapy, yielding explicitly Christian approaches that included insights and techniques from secular psychology. Good research, after all, is viewed as a way of discerning the general revelation of God.  The led to the emergence of Christian psychologists and counselors who worked under licenses for the most part, but were free to make their faith a part of the process when counseling other Christians.  Here was the best of both worlds: third party reimbursement with the freedom to be true to one’s faith.  Life was good, even if the biblical counselors kept hounding the integrators with questions about how a Christian worldview was not somehow compromised in this bargain.

            If one goes further back, the biblical counselors are closer to the history of Christian soul care.  “Counseling” more commonly occurred within the church by spiritual leaders rather than by outside professionals.  Counsel was sought from those that the community deemed wise, rather than those who the state certified as competent in some sense.

            Yet, the arrangement with the state has largely worked for many years.  Churches have slowly come to trust the mental health professions, or at least certain Christian therapists whose doctrinal position was known.  As for the professionals, the church/state mix worked pretty well also.  Sacred to the ethics of the counseling professions was that the individual provider could be true to his or her ownvalues and would not counsel contrary to one’s values, but would refer clients whose interests conflicted to a provider where they would find more common ground.

            Well, the times they are a’changin.  Specifically, the new code of ethics for the American Counseling Association makes clear that – at least for trainees – the values of the counseling profession supersede the personal values of the individual counselor.  Suddenly the Christian may not be able to be true to one’s worldview when counseling.  But this also may uncover a slower process that had been ongoing: the erosion of Christian counseling as a worldview and a comprehensive model to a selective use of spiritual techniques used only in conjunction with the spiritual values of the counselee – all while accepting a secular conceptualization of what counseling is.

            Responses to these changes have been almost uniform:  Christian schools, desperate to stay in business, have struggled to find ways to still say they are Christian yet kowtow to these regulations for fear graduates will not be able to get licenses if they do not.  If a program does not lead to licensure, then it may not draw students and thus cannot survive financially.  Even as these changes occur, more and more Christian schools – even traditionally conservative and evangelical ones – are marching to get CACREP accreditation as CACREP lobbies hard to require licensees to be from their programs.  One cannot imagine that APA, AAMFT, or other groups will be far behind. It seems likely that the future will hold that “Christian counseling” may no longer occur under the auspices of state licenses and be a violation of cultural values and even a crossing of the line between church and state as it is being defined these days.

            So, the time is at hand to step out of the box of licensure, and being thinking of how Christian therapists can be wholly true to their faith, counseling within the Christian worldview and drawing from psychological theory and research that is deeply vetted to be consistent with faith.  What might that look like? Is there some middle ground between licensed counselors and biblical counselors?  Are there alternative ways to deliver quality Christian counseling without compromise, remaining free from state and secular interference? 

            It is to this end I want to start a discussion. Several of us around the country are already brainstorming and praying about this, and we would welcome voices that might contribute to a healthy dialogue conducted in Christian love.  What is counseling that is truly Christian and a form of soul care? Does it have to be medicalized into a “treatment” for “mental illness”?  How can we respond to secularization of Christian values and ways the gospel may be compromised if we simply roll with the edicts of secular agencies?  What would such counseling look like? What training would it require? Would there be a way to advocate so that it couldbe done under the limits of a secular license, or do we need to consider freeing ourselves from state and secular control so that Christian counseling is subject only to Christ?  These are difficult questions, but it is vital that we begin discussing them so we provide paths for the future that protect the integrity of the work of Christian counseling and the welfare of believers who come to us assuming what we offer is consistent with traditional Christianity.

            Pray for this process. Offer some thoughts in an entry to be posted here.  Let’s converse about his, seeking God’s guidance together.  There will be various viewpoints, but we pray they are all consistent with the love of Christ.

Advent Therapy

Originally Posted on December 13, 2015 | CHUCK DEGROAT

For years now I’ve been probing the deep psychological wisdom of the ancient mothers and fathers - the pastoral wisdom of St. Gregory, the introduction to story found in St. Augustine’s life and confessions, the developmental pilgrimage to union and flourishing in St. Teresa’s Interior Castle, the invitation to “self-acquaintance” by Richard Baxter. I’ve found this journey to be an immense gift to my clinical work, as it provides the larger Story by which I navigate the particular stories of people in pain.

Part of my work as a pastor of spiritual formation at two different churches was mapping this Story onto the life of a congregation. Thankfully, I didn’t need to create a map. We’ve been given one in the church calendar. The yearly rhythm of the calendar is a kind of corrective to our anxious spirits. It is an antidote to whatever "security strategy" we’ve chosen to live our lives, whether that strategy takes the form of narcissistic control or passive dependency or anxious indecision or a hundred other styles of coping and hoping. 

The season we find ourselves in now is Advent, the first season of the new Christian year, a season of waiting, of longing, of anticipating. Have you found yourself in a season like this before? If we’re honest, we’ve all found ourselves cycling through seasons of anxious anticipation in our lives - some because they do not have the resources for another meal, some amidst the darkness of depression, some during a time of marital uncertainty, some who fear violence because of the color of their skin, some amidst a time of vocational disruption. In these times of uncertainty, it can be hard to hope. It may just feel too dark. Or hope might feel like a cruel joke - why would I ever hope again? Or, hope might be twisted into the form of a kind of naive optimism - God will work it all out! 

Advent meets us right where we are, in whatever strategy for coping or hoping we might employ. Advent hits us between the eyes with the reality that our strategy is not ultimately hopeful, but a form of self-sabotage. And Advent makes the bold promise that by claiming our deepest needs and fears and uncertainties and bringing them in a form of lament and protest before God, we might actually meet the One who is Hope. Advent invites us to cry out from the core, to long and desire that things would be put right in the world and in our hearts. Advent is therapeutic.

Now, here is the tough part. Advent is not about naive optimism. Advent isn’t a promise that if we just spill our guts to God, everything will be neatly packaged in a glittering box for us on Christmas Day. Nor is Advent about settling for a life of deferred hope - a kind of despairing life where we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, I guess the Christian life is just about waiting.” If either one of these is where we land, Advent has not yet done its therapeutic work. No, while Advent does not promise instant deliverance or a world made right overnight or the end of your depression and marital uncertainty, it does promise something even better.

God’s presence.

Advent anticipates the very best hope of all - Immanuel, God with us. I like to think of it this way. Sometimes, I need to be seen, to be known, maybe even to be hugged. I need you to be present to me in my pain. I don’t need a fix…I need you. And God knows this need better than we do. Advent anticipates God showing up. Advent invites you to cry out, “Will you show up for me?” It longs for the response, “I am with you, do not fear."

It is astounding to me…and it’s taken me 45 years to begin to get this…that God did not only show up, but God took up residence in my very being, and yours. Sometimes, when I’m in my stuff, I’m not very present to God. When things are tough, it’s not like God goes away, because God has taken up residence. No, it’s like I go away. I become a stranger to my own heart, my own being, my own presence. In those times, I feel lost. Advent’s cry is, “God, I need you. I’m tired of my own strategies for coping and hoping. Be with me.”

God is not like a meddling spouse or friend who tries to fix you. God comes closer. God listens. God waits with you. God dwells with you even when you feel like your being is the most repulsive, inhospitable residence in the world. God, in Jesus, is used to taking up residence in inhospitable places.

And so, join the Advent cry. Long deeply, and let Hope meet you right where you are.

Used by Permission

Rest: A Guided Christian Devotional Meditation

Originally Posted on November 29, 2015  | By: LYDIA KIM-VAN DAALEN

Thanksgiving is hardly over and many frantically start preparations for the Christmas season, unfortunately mostly not with a very Advent-minded spirit. Whether it’s Christmas preparations, work, family, sorrows, or something else, a lot of people are­­ – willingly, or unwillingly – trapped in, if not addicted to, busyness. It’s hard to find rest for our souls. Yet, the Prince of Peace has come so we may find true rest. This week’s meditation is a shortened version of a Guided Christian Devotional Meditation on Rest:

Lord, you are gracious, you are righteous, and full of mercy (Ps. 116:5). May this meditation be used to help your child find rest at this very moment and to take your rest into the confusion and busyness, the hustle and bustle of every day that only you know everything about.

Let’s begin by starting where you are right now. Here are some questions that help you focus on that which is causing unrest in you.

Are you overwhelmed by some of the burdens in your life?

Are you worrying about things in your present situation?

Are you anxious about what the future may bring?

Are life’s sorrows so heavy that you feel exhausted?

Or are you just running around trying to get everything done right and on time?

What in your life at this moment seems so intense, so big, or so scary that it takes away all restful space in your soul?

Take a moment to put your finger on the issue, to reflect on it, or even verbalize it in a prayer.

***

Your times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15)

Whatever you are experiencing may not go away right at this moment;

it may not even go away for a long time.

What can happen is that God infuses it with a rest that transforms your inner being and changes your perspective.

Your times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15)

Whatever it is that causes you to worry, to be weary, or busy, place it in your imagination in God’s hand.

***

Allow yourself to rest now as you know that your times, your issues, are in God’s hand. He’s got it under control. You may simply want to be quiet or you might want to reflect on what it means for you that your times are in God’s hands.

***

As you’ve become aware of one or more triggers of unrest in your soul, and as you have meditated on bringing this to God, listen to a few promises:

Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need (Mat 6:32, 33)

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Mat 11:29)

I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish (Jer 31: 24 ) 

Whenever you feel unrest creeping up in you, picture your issues or yourself in God’s hand and know that he is in control; your times are in his hands.

Choose to take a deep breath and live out of the rest that God promises for your soul.

Go in the rest and peace of the Lord and serve him with joy.

(Thank you to those who’ve expressed interest in receiving the full meditations of the previous weeks; if you’re interested in receiving this full meditation on rest (and/or last week’s) feel free to email me atlydiakim.vd@gmail.com. The full meditation is longer and allows for more guided interaction)

USED WITH PERMISSION

Solomon Vs. Catharsis: Why We Need Movies

Originally Posted on October 30, 2015 | By JOSHUA GIBBS

Why do people like movies so much? Why will we not shut up about movies? Why do we like making lists of our favorite movies, sharing those lists with friends, and perusing our friend’s lists of favorite movies? Why are movies so easy to talk about at a party? How is it that films are capable of uniting us? How has film become the universal art form? Snooty university profs are apt to enjoy good films, but so are little children. How is it that the National Board of Review named Wall E one of the top ten films of the 2008, and my four year old daughter concurs? What other art form is capable of drawing together Western civilization?

I do not know. It’s a mystery to me why film rose above the novel, above the symphony, above the theater to become the modern global art form, but I would like to talk about what movies are good for. I would like to talk about one bad theory as to what movies are good for, and I would like to suggest what Scripture has to say about the value of film in a world such as ours.

Sometimes you just need a good cry. The Greek theory of catharsis might be that simple. Sometimes you need a good cry, and sometimes you need to let a big, nasty, violent film help you work out all that aggression that’s been building up at work over the last month. The Greek theory of catharsis imagines man as a vessel which slowly fills with emotion. As the vessel fills, the soul of a man becomes painfully distended, and he needs to find a safe way of divesting himself of that emotion. If the man vicariously lives through the characters in a drama, he can empty himself of painful desire, delight, fear or grief, without becoming legally responsible for the actions of the character. Put another way, a man hates his boss and wants to kill him. As opposed to killing him, why not watch this character in this film pretend to kill his boss? That way, you get the pleasure of watching your boss die without having to go to jail.

Or, a man’s life is very boring, and he needs excitement, but he has little time to pursue it. Why not watch a movie about a spy, or a famous lover, or a serial killer— all of whom live very intense, dramatic lives— and imagine that man’s exciting life is yours, as well?

Or, to return to that good cry, perhaps the world seems like a very terrible place, and yet nothing in the world is so terrible as to bring you to tears, though you wish something could. Why not watch a story about an artificially awful world that will induce those tears that your benumbed soul cannot produce on their own?

In each of the aforementioned cases, a certain emotion (hatred, boredom, sadness) has swelled a man’s soul to an uncomfortable extent, and that man must rid himself of the hatred or boredom or sadness or he feels he will burst. Emotion is unstable, unpredictable, and a man must be regularly released from the dangerous effects of emotion if he wants to be safe. You don’t want that emotion coming out suddenly in a grocery store, or on a blind date. Emotion is Dionysian, undifferentiated, chaotic. Greek plays were performed at festivals which began with sacrifices to Dionysius (in Heroes of the City of Man, Peter Leithart notes that our word “tragedy” is derived from the greek “tragos,” the goat sacrificed to the god before the plays began), and the god was known for his ability to deliver men from the exhausting tyranny of reason which typified the responsible, Apollonian day-to-day life. Apollo was normative, and the reasonable life was typical, but from time to time, a man needed to empty himself of self-control, self-awareness, and let wine take over. All the dark impulses of man needed space to roam, even if only for a little while.

While catharsis can sometimes appear to be a satisfying account of man’s emotional life (a good cry does feel good, doesn’t it? “…a sad face is good for the heart…” as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes), I believe it over simplifies the emotional complexities of a human being. From time to time, he gets a little full and needs to be emptied… as though it were that simple. The theory of catharsis radically separates man from his emotions. A man is not his emotions, but sits apart from anger, sadness, boredom and is capable of viewing those emotions as an objective other. We do  not speak of our emotions this way, though. We say, “I am angry.” We say, “I am sad.” We say, “I am glad.” Catharsis  reduces man to a receptacle of feeling. The receptacle is not angry, glad, or bored. The receptacle is clear and only appears red when it is filled with anger, only appears green when filled jealousy, only appears yellow when filled with cowardice, only appears blue when sad. And yet in Proverbs, Solomon teaches, “…as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” A man’s emotions have everlasting consequences, so in what sense is a man not his anger? Not his joy?

I suppose a key reason I am reticent to credit catharsis is, to be frank, it sounds great, but is rarely recognizable in the real world. Were catharsis a proper understanding of man and his emotions, why do we so regularly read that school shooters maintained a regular diet of violence before acting out that which they had so often fantasized? Why is pornography consumed serially, excessively, when the theory of catharsis suggests a few minutes of pornography ought to suit a man for months? Or, why does a man who saves his pocket money to buy his girlfriend a lavish gift not immediately begin to lose interest in her as soon as he gives it? Has that man not spent his love? Catharsis tends to make every human experience into an analog of the sexual experience, wherein desire rises to a pitch and then drops off precipitously.

At the same time, the good cry does something, and whatever that something is, it feels like relief. Is it? And does the relief of a good cry not go far in vindicating catharsis?

In place of catharsis, let me commend to you the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. If the reference is not immediately clear, I refer to Solomon’s “a time for this, a time for that” poem.

Examine the poem, and you’ll find there are twenty-eight times mentioned; twenty-eight is seven sets of four. Four is frequently employed in Scripture to connote humanity and the earth. There are four seasons, four directions, four Gospel writers (four human accounts of the Human One), four elements, four humors, four tempers… And seven is the number of finitude, limitation, completion, finality. In granting us twenty-eight times, Solomon describes the whole of life. God has appointed a season for every human activity, every human task, every proper human experience. “When times are good, be happy; when times are sad, remember: God has created one just as He has created the other,” writes Solomon. God has given man a time to gather stones, and a time to cast away stones. A time to laugh, and a time to mourn. A time to kill, and a time to heal. The infinite splendor of God is made manifest to man through a diversity of events, a complex of desires, some of them contradictory, and yet all of them ultimately capable of harmony… God has appointed such a diversity of events for man becomes He loves man, and desires man should know Him, God, as the Pale Rider who brings death and the Prince of Life, as well… the helpless Child who beholds His mother, and the Warrior who smites the Earth with the rod of His mouth, the lean, fasting student of John the Baptist, but also the “wine bibber” and Lord of the Feast…

The problem is, life in the city scales back the dynamic life of man. Society streamlines man’s life, tends to homogenize it, distract it. Granted, society can also provide a great diversity of experience, as well. In some ways, I imagine my life is richer than the life of a 10th century French onion farmer who never travelled more than ten miles from the spot on which he was conceived, born, helped another to conceive, slept, and died. I have seen art that man could not conceive. I have met strange human beings he could not fathom. My faith has been challenged in awful ways. At the same time, in a very different way, I imagine that 10th century farmer’s life had a greater breadth than my own. He understood the sacrifice involved in having beef for dinner. He intuited a connection between food and weather and prayer that I do not. My prayers for food are an afterthought, a given, obligatory, while his were desperate and genuine. There are profound ways in which life in the modern, Aristotelian city (of Darning and the 8:15, as per Auden) deprives a man of essential human experiences. I have often heard it said that when Gorbachev toured the United States in the 1980s, he remarked on “how well you hide your old people.” There are significant times which Solomon describes from which a city-dweller is cut off. If you would know God, you must reach outside the realm of your immediate experience, for your immediate experience has streamlined God from your life for the sake of ease. The life described in Ecclesiastes 3 is not an easy life, and when a man lives in a world which is always trying to make life easier, such a world is making God unknown.

And so we need movies. Art is God’s gracious condescension to the imbalanced world, the world which has a thousand times to kill and no times to heal… a million moments for laughter, and few for authentic mourning. Art is that which restores balance to a life overly centered on the this and not on the that. Art is the medicine of emotional harmony. Art accounts for those ways in which our world has been edited, formatted to fit this screen, bleeped out, fuzzed out, silenced, or aborted. The soul of the artist is variously empty, but his art fills that emptiness and so testifies to Solomon’s tantalizing spectrum of being in Ecclesiastes 3. The man whose life is overstuffed with laughter needs to go to the house of mourning, and Schindler’s List is just such an invitation. The man who has lingered too long in the house of mourning needs the hilarity of the angel-beast, and so his soul is restored when he watches Dumb and Dumber.

Unlike the cathartic view of human nature, Solomon commends not a mildness of emotional commitment, but pressing in to the hilt. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” teaches Solomon. When God gives you a time to cry, cry with all your might. When God gives you a time to laugh, laugh until your sides hurt. This is manifestly not the view of the Greeks, who believed an extremity of sentiment was painful. The “balance” suggested by Solomon is a balance of strength, not a balance of mildness.

But is film the easy way out? If a man has loitered too long in the house of riches, does he not need time in a soup kitchen? Is watching Wendy & Lucy not the easy way out? Is art not a convenient excuse for a genuinely dynamic life? Can film really restore balance, or merely an image of balanced life?

I know a few people who do not watch films. Some of them are profoundly interesting and live lives I think must be spectacularly fulfilling, and some of them are the most spiritually impoverished and tepid people imaginable. Most of the people I know hang somewhere in between these two extremes. I believe I do. Life in the city is hectic, busy, often awful, and while it is pretty to think that every one of Solomon’s essential human seasons can be encountered in a natural, unfeigned, unplanned way, for myself, this is not the case. I have a job, a family who both weighs upon and supports my soul… Films are a manner in which my soul can be quickly recalibrated, although films must be married with contemplation, introspection, music, liturgy, conversation. When I am depressed, I listen to Louis CK. “It is very easy to love you in the Autumn,” I often say to my wife. My excitement that Fall has arrived must be met by viewings of The Remains of the Day and Gattaca, lest I become overly happy… or overly wise. And I think many people employ films in such a manner… to balance, harmonize, level and focus their disheveled, lopsided lives.

I am grateful for the gift of film. I need films to help me feel, not because my feelings are broken, but because they are slanted, crooked, overcompensated, and the way of the Lord is straight.

Used by permission